Most every dispassionate observer in D1AA rugby started this season expecting either Lindenwood-Belleville or AIC, or possibly both, to be at-large D1AA playoff teams, but that has not happened.
Lindenwood-Belleville self-reported that it fielded players who were not academically eligible (according to school rules, not USA Rugby rules), and as such the Lynx were not technically in good standing for five games. USA Rugby issued forfeits for those games, and thus Lindenwood-Belleville's 6-4 record is now 3-7. That record was not good enough for the playoffs.
AIC was in a different situation. Having finished an independent schedule of six games, the Yellow Jackets ended up 4-2. Along with beating NEC twice, AIC had wins over UMass and UNH and lost competitive games to Iona and Notre Dame College.
(An aside, NEC's schedule is about as difficult as any team's in the Northeast. It included Bishop's out of Quebec, Army, AIC twice, St. Bonaventure, NDC, and Kutztown. NEC is 0-7.)
The Yellow Jackets had an independent schedule after being left out of the Liberty Conference during the conference shake-up over the summer. AIC applied to be in the Rugby East but was not accepted. The Yellow Jackets then opted not to apply for membership in D1AA conferences MARC, MAC, and Chesapeake because the member teams were too far away.
"We played every D1A team in our region," AIC head coach Rob Guiry said.
Given assurances by USA Rugby Collegiate Director Rich Cortez that the Yellow Jackets would have a seat at the playoff table, AIC found no such space this weekend as a committee of the four fall conferences — Roger Mazzarella of the MAC, Dan Yarusso of the MARC, Scott Zavrel of the Chesapeake, and Marty Bradley of the SCRC, along with USA Rugby D1AA representative James Fonda (Pac West) — voted unanimously not to accept the team's playoff bid.
"I explained that AIC had to go find a schedule for themselves," Cortez said. "But the people on the committee looked at their record and the records of the teams they played and said it wasn't enough. Of the eight teams that could make the playoffs in the fall, plus AIC, the only team with a worse won-loss record than AIC is James Madison."
Cortez said he is looking into having AIC participate in a play-in match in the spring.
Guiry, for his part, is not happy.
"I think we have independents in D1AA," Guiry said. "But the independents don't have a representative on the committee. We had not only AIC but Lindenwood-Belleville and NEC who could have been considered. But independents will always be at a disadvantage because we don't have a representative on the committee."
Guiry said he acknowledges that maybe his team's schedule wasn't very strong, but he added that NEC was much better than most might assume based on their brutal schedule.
But, Guiry added, "I question what D1AA teams could find a win on NEC's schedule. We played every D1AA team within four hours of us. With the Liberty Conference moving, it left no one in D1AA in the Northeast."
The vote also smacks of keeping good with your own. The current eight-team fall playoff has a certain symmetry about it — two teams from each of the four conferences. To vote in one independent team and thus tell one conference (probably, harshly, the MARC) that only one seed would come from last conference seemed, in the end, too tough a decision to make.
Guiry posits that AIC is also a strong team, and perhaps being a contender was a factor in the decision. He said this even as the committee members implied strongly that AIC hadn't proved it was strong.
"It boggles my mind that it was a unanimous vote against us; not one person on the committee saw us as a quality team," Guiry said. "We lost by 14 against Notre Dame College, and it was a seven-point game until the last five minutes."
The upshot of this situation is that the guidelines for which teams should be in D1AA and which should be in D1A — and how teams are put into the playoffs — may have to be re-written. To have a committee in which only one of the five members doesn't have a dog in the fight struck some observers as wrong.
Guiry also said the circumstances of an independent team have to be taken into account.
"At the bottom of the application to be in the playoffs you have a space to plead your case, but it's a paragraph," Guiry said. "I thought Rich [Cortez] understood, but you can't really articulate a whole season's worth of issues and the issues in putting together an independent schedule in the Northeast."
For AIC, the Yellow Jackets will look ahead to the Liberty Bowl Series, which streams live on FloRugby on Nov. 18.
"We're very excited to take part in that," Guiry said.
In the end, concluded Guiry, "You want to take the decision out of someone's hands. We lost two games, and that put it in the hands of someone else to decide our fate."